What do you want from help? (was: Do online helps have chapter numbers)

Subject: What do you want from help? (was: Do online helps have chapter numbers)
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 20 Apr 2005 09:46:00 -0400

Jens Reineking wondered: <<What do you expect from a good online help?>>

I complained about the quality of online help in a previous message, so I suppose I should put up or shut up. Here are a few things I commonly find that annoy me to the point of going out and buying a third-party book on the software:

- I've yet to see an HTMLHelp implementation that was as easy to use and as effective as classic WinHelp. That's doubly true when the help is implemented using frames, so that I have to click between panes with my mouse before I can scroll. Adobe help particularly annoys me of late.

- Lousy indexes. Indexing is an art and a science, and although it's true that any index is better than none, it's also time we realized that hiring a good indexer is not a luxury. At a minimum, indexes should cover every topic (most don't) and should include many synonyms for each entry. I have a much better than average vocabulary, yet I can't count the number of times I've been unable to find a topic under half a dozen different synonyms--all the kinds of words we use daily here on techwr-l. Without knowing the one word that the techwhirler used, I had no way to find the topic.

- Structure is often vestigial. Yes, it's true that much online help is contextual and not part of any linear structure, but there are always obvious hooks on which we can hang a structure. For example, why do help authors so rarely offer an easy way to browse by (for example) menu name so I can click down through the list of menu-choice combinations? (I end up using the index, which is fine when the index has the appropriate entries.) I'd like to see more "theme" areas, such as "characters/fonts", that provide a table of contents to all topics that fall under that theme. Instead, most related functions are scattered under several different headings. Folks, tables of contents are cheap. Why don't we create more of them than just the automated master TOC?

- Missing content: There are rarely overviews of the software's metaphor and how to work within that metaphor to get things done. Where there are copious descriptions of all functions, there are no "this is how you assemble all those functions to accomplish the following core tasks" types of topics. There is almost never any help of the kind "don't use this function to accomplish task A; use function B instead because it's more efficient". There is rarely any help of the kind "there's a problem with the way this function is implemented, and here's how to work around it".

- Navigation tools are often primitive, and restricted to only the icons/buttons present in the help engine. There are rarely any breadcrumbs ("you followed this path to get to the current topic"), forcing me to retrace my path manually, and rarely any indication of where a topic fits within the context of larger (broader) topics.

- Text is often clearly written, but useless. The most common reason is that the author never bothered to ask the questions I would ask and therefore never attempted to answer my questions. (I recommend using the five W's approach combined with personas to help prevent this kind of problem.) And, of course, there's still a pile of poorly written text out there.

- Cross-references are minimal or absent. I recall once trying to find out about form fields in Word, and only being able to find information on Web forms. Now let's be blunt about this: How many people use Word to create Web forms? How many use it to create Word documents with form fields? How many techwhirlers would create a help topic that refers only to Web forms, with no cross-reference to any other kind of forms? Sheesh.

- Formatting has improved greatly, but it's still often inflexible and of poor legibility. I particularly despise help systems that don't wrap the text when I resize the window to let me see the help system and the application simultaneously. And don't get me started about PDF for help. <g>

- Worst of all, help systems are still most often a remedy for poorly designed software with unusable interfaces, cryptic onscreen labels and affordances, seemingly random layout of onscreen controls, and so on. If we have to live with this kind of software--and we will for some time to come--can't we at least embed the help in the interface instead of forcing users to leave their task (the application) and figure out where the help is hidden in a second application (the help viewer)?

Give me an hour and I can probably double that list, but I think I've made my point. Before you ask, I've been guilty of several of these sins myself. I do recognize that in real-world work situations (such as when I was the sole help author, and that function was added on top of my real full-time job, which was editing and translating), it's not possible to do it all. But folks, we could surely do much better than we've been doing.

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)
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Do online helps have chapter numbers?: From: Reena Misra
Do online helps have chapter numbers?: From: Geoff Hart

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